Nov 082016

When we last did an election-themed post, we wrote “this damn election continues to never end”. That was in August of 2008. How naive we were then. As this latest round finally limps to a close today, we wanted to put together a cover-song soundtrack to take with you to the polls. To that end, we’ve compiled our 11 favorite covers of campaign theme songs.

Campaign theme songs used to be far better than they are now. Up until the 20th century, candidates would use songs written specifically for them, from James Madison’s “Huzzah for Madison, Huzzah” to James K. Polk’s “Jimmy Polk of Tennessee.” The best remembered is probably William Henry Harrison’s “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too,” a song proved more influential than his actual presidency, which lasted a month before he died in office. Sometimes these theme songs were just rewritten versions of popular songs (“Hello Dolly” becomes “Hello Lyndon”, “My Kind of Town Chicago Is” becomes “My Kind of Guy Dukakis Is”), but even still at least some effort was being made to come up with original lyrics.

Sadly, those days have ended. Now candidates choose from a handful of already-popular songs that vaguely embody their message. Hillary Clinton’s been using Katy Perry’s “Roar” a lot this time around, which Donald Trump leans on Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” after just about every other musician filed cease and desist letters (they eventually did too). No matter your politics, the move away from jolly songs about a particular candidate is a bummer. We’d definitely get behind a platform of “Make Campaign Theme Songs Great Again.”

In lieu of that, we’ve made a playlist celebrating campaign songs past and present. We could only find so many covers of the older candidate-specific songs – they don’t age well, particularly if the candidate is a loser (artists are not lining up to cover “Go with Goldwater”) – so we padded it out with some more recent campaign theme songs you might actually know. Go vote, and bring this soundtrack with you.

Oscar Brand – Follow Washington

In 1999, folk music impresario Oscar Brand saved many of these old campaign songs from history’s dustbin with his simply-titled collection Presidential Campaign Songs, 1789-1996, so it seems fitting we start here. His covers set the template for all to follow – and for many of the early songs, his is still the only recorded version out there. His album starts of course with George Washington – though his is really more of an ode than a campaign song, since Washington didn’t really have to campaign for the presidency. After the Revolutionary War he was pretty much appointed by fiat. Pretty un-American.

Lost Radio Rounders – Adams and Liberty

Brand died this fall, but upstate New York duo Lost Radio Rounders have continued his tradition with their own campaign-covers album Politics & Patriots earlier this year. Imagine the audacity of writing your campaign theme song to the tune of the Star-Spangled Banner.

The Jigsaw Seen – Little Know Ye Who’s Coming

While the earlier campaign songs are all rah-rah-rah for their candidates, John Quincy Adams’ song took things in a more apocalyptic direction. If Adams doesn’t win his reelection, the lyrics warn, fire, famine, “knavery,” Satan, and many more terrible fates will be our lot. Well Adams didn’t win, and we still avoided most of those (maybe not the knavery).

They Might Be Giants – Tippecanoe and Tyler Too

William Henry Harrison died one month after taking office. The story has long been that he caught a cold during his long inauguration speech, but according to the Washington Post’s fantastic election-season podcast “Presidential,” the more likely cause was a contaminated White House water supply (this also supposedly killed another president nine years later – amazing that they didn’t clean the White House pipes the first time!). So Harrison’s legacy is zilch, except for this great song. It predates Trump’s Marco Rubio insults by 150 years, calling Martin Van Buren “Little Van” (he is “a used-up man”). They Might Be Giants should do a whole album of presidential songs; they also have a good original about James K. Polk.

Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson Cast – The Hunters of Kentucky

Back before Hamilton, there was another surprising musical about an unlikely president. But instead of rap about Alexander Hamilton, it was pop-punk about Andrew Jackson. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson was a hit well off-Broadway, but never became the sensation Hamilton did. In addition to uber-catchy original songs (don’t miss “Populism Yea Yea!”), they rocked out a cover of his actual campaign song “The Hunters of Kentucky” to close the show.

Doklady – Happy Days Are Here Again

Now we enter the more modern phase, in which already popular songs are coopted by politicians. At least this song was only a couple years old when Franklin Delano Roosevelt latched onto it. I really wanted to find a slow, depressing, bleak version of this chipper song. Thankfully, Doklady offered exactly what I was looking for – complete with rain noises.

Fuzzbox – High Hopes

Frank Sinatra rewrote the lyrics to his 1959 hit “High Hopes” to support John F. Kennedy. Short-lived British punks Fuzzbox sang the original lyrics in their cover, but this live video is so enjoyable we’re bending the rules a bit and including the non-presidential version of a president’s song. Just imagine these mohawked gals singing about JFK, rather than ants.

Roberta Flack – Bridge Over Troubled Water

Bernie Sanders got a lot of attention for an ad that featured Paul Simon’s “America,” and forty years prior George McGovern tried to same trick with a different Simon song. Roberta Flack’s stunning version came out right about the time McGovern’s campaign started.

Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires – Born in the USA

And now we enter the modern political era. Today, the only time you hear about a candidate using a particular song is when the musician is pissed about it. Ronald Reagan of course started this trend by wildly misinterpreting Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” as a patriotic anthem. Isbell and Shires’ acoustic cover puts the lyrics so far to the fore, the true sentiments can’t be mistaken.

Darren Hanlon – Don’t Stop

Bill Clinton used this Rumours classic for his first campaign, and Fleetwood Mac was happy to let him do it. They even reunited for his inaugural ball. There are fewer good covers of this song than you’d expect (Elton John’s take is not one of his finer moments), but Darren Hanlon solo banjo version from an Australian radio session brings a nice delicacy.

Erin and the Wildfire – Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours

Candidates don’t necessarily have just one campaign song any more, but sometimes one jumps out from the pack anyway, and that’s certainly the case with Barack Obama using “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours.” Last year, Erin and the Wildfire totally reinvented Stevie Wonder’s classic song.

Now go vote!

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  One Response to “Covers of Campaign Songs Through American History”

Comments (1)
  1. Thank you for the post! The Adams song is actually not set to the tune of “Star-Spangled Banner,” the lyrics of which were written during the War of 1812. Both “Adams and Liberty,” written in 1798, and “Star-Spangled Banner” are instead set to the tune of “The Anacreontic Song,” a drinking song that goes back several decades before that.

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